The Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe) is about the German serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann. It’s not a documentary though, it’s an artistic interpretation of the story, and it’s a classic of the cannibal genre.
Fritz Haarmann, a.k.a. “the Butcher of Hanover” or “the Vampire of Hanover”, was a German serial killer who sexually assaulted, murdered and mutilated at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924 in Hanover, Germany. His case was the partial inspiration for Fritz Lang’s film M, the antagonist of which was a composite of Haarmann and at least three other interwar cannibals.
The most recent film to be directly based upon Haarmann’s murder spree, Der Totmacher (The Deathmaker), was released in 1995 and focused on the written records of the psychiatric examinations of Haarmann.
Haarmann was a petty thief, conman, and homosexual (which was against the law at that time) and served several prison sentences. Germany was in dire social and financial distress after the war, and crime was rampant. The police knew of Haarmann’s minor criminalities, but preferred to use him as an informant, and even tolerated him patrolling the railway stations demanding to see travellers’ documents and making arrests.
The film transfers the action to the late 1940s after the second world war; it was too expensive to recreate the streets of 1924, although the final scene reveals that Haarmann was executed in 1925. But the story is timeless, so the time shift is incongruous, but not disturbing.
Everything else about the film is disturbing though. The streets of Germany were full of homeless youths, and Haarmann would offer them shelter, take them home, feed them and make love to them, and then bite through their adam’s apples to kill them. He called this his “love bite”. He was never actually charged with cannibalism (it was not a criminal offence, and still isn’t in most jurisdictions) but he actively traded in black-market ground meat, and neighbours reported seeing him carrying large amounts out of his apartment, although he was never seen to bring in any carcasses.
The film makes it clear that the meat he supplies his delighted neighbours is human. The “innocent” cannibals around the table accept Haarmann’s story that the meat comes from a butcher named Karl, are pleased to be able to get meat, and do not ask questions.
Tenderness of the Wolves was produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific if short-lived German film maker. Fassbinder also appears in a minor role as Haarmann’s criminal accomplice, Hugo Wittkowski.
The director, Ulli Lommel – later responsible for the infamous video nasty The Boogeyman – was a regular actor in Fassbinder films, but this was only his second directorial effort and shows an exquisite artistry.
Kurt Raab wrote the screenplay as well as delivering an astonishing performance as Haarmann. At once vulnerable and yet able to play the tough cop, Raab’s Haarmann is drawn from Peter Lorre’s performance in M but also F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist vampire classic Nosferatu. The symbolism of the monstrous killer is clear at the beginning as we watch Haarmann’s shadow moving over the street, just as we saw, in the earlier movie, the nosferatu climbing the stairs.
But is he the vampire Nosferatu or the snivelling child molester from M?
Well, both, and that gives him a complexity that makes the film so fascinating. Haarmann is not the only criminal in the story – he is just worst among equals. Everyone is grifting and looking for an edge. The homeless kids are looking for food and shelter and affection, and Haarmann is only too willing to give them all that, but there is a price – their lives and their flesh. He is looking for love too, but from all the wrong people, in particular his tempestuous relationship with Hans Grans, who sees him purely as a meal ticket.
Roger Ebert summed up the film:
“the movie has a haunting banality. It’s about insignificant creeps, and it invests them with a depressing universality.”
Haarmann in this film is both tender and wolf, and in that he encapsulates Hannah Arendt’s summation of Adolf Eichmann in her study of his war crimes trial. Eichmann was a leading figure in the Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry during the second world war. Arendt found that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann was a monster, in fact he was “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. Eichmann maintained that he was just following orders, doing his job, and Arendt called this “the banality of evil”.
Just so, Haarmann would have argued that he was just doing his job, doing what he needed to do to survive a broken society, make a little money and feed his appetite for food, for sex and for flesh. And for love, the one thing he never achieved.
At the end, Haarmann is led off to the police car, his neighbours and followers who ate his meat gladly watching on. His last words are:
“Take my little life. I am not afraid of death through the axe or the hangman. It is my salvation. I am happy to give my death and my blood for atonement into God’s arms and justice. It could have been thirty, but also forty – I don’t know. There are victims that you don’t know about. But they are not the ones you’re thinking of. They were the most beautiful ones I had.”
The full movie is currently available on YouTube.